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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Where have all the great ones gone?

– by T.I. Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning & Communication

This past Saturday, I attended a “celebration of life” for Erich W. Vogt, one of the founders of TRIUMF and perhaps the last of the generation of “Renaissance-man” style leaders who helped shape the modern era of particle and nuclear physics.

“Celebration of life” is North American politeness for memorial service. Erich passed away on February 19, 2014, at the age of 84. He was with family and friends until the very end, and each day he would tell us a new historical anecdote, hilarious and penetrating as always, and then comment on his intentions to return to work at TRIUMF the next morning.

The service itself was spectacular with about 400 people packed into the former faculty club on the UBC campus. We were regaled with a litany of precise, powerful speeches that mirrored Erich’s personality in so many ways: witty, thoughtful, provocative, and unabashed. The collected wisdom and life experience in the room was stupefying, perhaps an even larger testament to the impact that Erich had on all of us—and the entire world.

I went with my wife and our three-month old daughter. I told people that I was hoping she’d be inspired by the legacy and soak up some of the aura of longevity and greatness.

But that got me to thinking. Erich was one of “those” scientists, the ones who were shrewd, sharp-witted, and educated in everything from particle physics and international politics to porcelain plateware and the development of the modern piano. In his spare time, he met Einstein, befriended prime ministers, raised money for and founded a laboratory in Israel, wrote an authoritative history of his family and its origins, and helped articulate and lead the vision for a national subatomic-physics laboratory in Canada that became TRIUMF.

We can look through the records and the recollections of those who knew Erich to trace out how he became who he was. But I often wonder where the next generation of Erichs is coming from. Are they here and I just don’t see them? Is our society still inspiring and retaining people like this? Is there still a valuable role for these types of “Renaissance” people? Moreover, are they needed, or is there even a place for them in our 21st century culture?

It does seem that the best and brightest of any generation tend to seek their personal, financial, and intellectual fortunes at the edgy frontiers. Some people argue that science has faded from the position of being The Most Exciting and Challenging Frontier and is now replaced by entrepreneurship, social expression, and so on. These people would argue that the next generation of “Renaissance” types are still there, but they are no longer flocking to science, or even more specifically, to physics. They are simply going elsewhere.

Others will argue that the modern system of measuring achievement works against the Renaissance individual. In the 20th century, the ambitious intellectual was able to develop mastery in multiple fields and to pursue vigourously multiple interests in an environment that placed fewer burdens on them. The culture allowed—and even encouraged—such a person to seek greatness. But in today’s landscape, to be successful, one needs to be increasingly specialized and spend more time writing grants, reviewing articles, and attending soft-skills training classes. It is said that we’ve moved into the era where “Jack of all trades, master of none” holds true, and that is how we dismiss the Renaissance person.

But are we in a society that no longer allows these broad-minded, passionate individuals to blossom and flourish? Has there been a recalibration of culture where these types are now as important as the focused specialist? Or perhaps the world is so complicated and fractured that a classical approach to mastery is simply ineffective?

In my view, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The 21st century is going to require a new type of individual to make pivotal contributions. The qualities of leadership and greatness do last more than one generation, but they evolve perhaps every three or four generations. Instead of wishing for the leaders of the last era, our task is to look at the world today: who is making an impact, what are they bringing to the table, and how can we make more of that happen?

And in our world of networks (virtual and social) and complexities, greatness can emerge more easily from the combined contributions of dozens or even hundreds of people. For instance, a select few physicists won the Nobel Prize for the experimental work that discovered the electron, the neutrino, and so on. For the Higgs boson, however, the Nobel Prize went to the two surviving theorists who posited its existence, in part because the discovery-in-reality was the product of a cast of 10,000 people. It would be silly to try and select just two or three people that made it happen. It took everyone! Now, and perhaps for the 21st century, that is greatness.

Looking across the frontiers of science, who are the leaders today? Are there common characteristics? How do they distinguish themselves?

Tell me what you see!

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